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The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library


‘The Forbidden Experiment: Crossing the human-animal boundary in the twentieth century’, 20th January, 2015.

‘The Forbidden Experiment: Crossing the human-animal boundary in the twentieth century’


Prof. Sandra Swart,
Southern African Historical Society and
Stellenbosch University, South Africa.


Several scientific comparisons were made between the infant development of human and non-human animals (overwhelmingly primates) in the early decades of the twentieth century. These experiments in “cross-fostering” meant raising animal and human babies alongside each other in human homes – experiments fraught with difficult moral questions, evinced in the young disciplines of primatology, ethology and, particularly, psychology. Yet the inverse case study, the so-called "Forbidden Experiment" – where a human baby was raised by apes –could not be conducted, as discussed. It breached too many ethical principles. Thus scientists fell with feverish excitement upon the possibility of such “natural” case-studies in the early decades of the twentieth century. They seemed to provide the empirical data no ethical university research could generate. The speaker tracks the various cases of “real Mowgli and Tarzans”, which emerged sporadically throughout the twentieth century, with particular emphasis on the “Baboon Boy” of South Africa. Academics in psychology and primatology used the cases to buttress their own developing arguments about the gamut between nature and nurture, with reference to early child development. The speaker discusses the suite of arguments unleashed in international academic circles in the 1930s and 40s, by locating it within the disciplinary context of the consciously cross-fostered chimpanzees. These debates are then contrasted with subsequent cases of feral children, in order to track change over time in the shifting academic understanding of the “Forbidden Experiment”.


Prof. Sandra Swart is Associate Professor of History at Stellenbosch University, South Africa and President of the Southern African Historical Society. She is a social and environmental historian, with a doctorate in modern history and an M. Sc in Environmental Management—both from Oxford University. She is the author of, among other things, Riding High: Horses, Humans and History in South Africa, 2010.

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